Secret Ireland: Tralee Bay
Island safaris and a chance to play CSI detective are in store for Pol O'Conghaile
The summer cycle
Most outdoorsy folk hit Kerry on two feet rather than two wheels.
However, although cycling options aren't hugely developed outside Killarney, Dingle and the Ring of Kerry, there's still plenty of exploring to be done if you take the bike off the beaten track.
Take Kerry Head, where a 20km cycleway starts and ends in Ballyheigue, providing smashing views over Tralee Bay.
Maulin Mountain, lung-loads of fresh Atlantic air, and a mix of flat and hilly terrain without too much traffic to contend with are all on offer here.
The loop is signposted out and back from Ballyheigue, and though it starts with a steep climb, the return is kinder on the calves, veering inland and returning by the ruins of Ballyheigue Castle.
You could also do the loop by car, of course -- but sure then you wouldn't get wet!
The summer skill
Judging by the wounds on his leg bone, the victim was killed by a sword. Not only that, but the nature and sequence of his injuries suggest the man was on horseback when he was attacked by one or more assailants on foot.
His head was not found.
Thankfully, this isn't a recent murder I'm dealing with. The victim was killed in Tralee some 500 years ago. His bones, and the detective work, are on display in Kerry County Museum alongside other cold cases such as a Viking tooth and medieval parasites.
It's not every day you get to excavate a skeleton, either. Bone investigations take place in the museum's basement, where kids can use trowels and brushes to sift through a sandpit containing a replica skull and bones, shells, coins and other artefacts.
It's all part of a brilliant, ongoing drive to make history hands-on and turn the museum into an interactive community resource.
Fancy trying on windproofs like Tom Crean would have worn? What about counting tree rings, or walking down a medieval streetscape?
Even if you're not with kids, it's a fascinating little museum. I loved the 1,400-year-old brooch, discovered when it fell out of a sod of turf into a family fire. Ditto the evocative black-and-white photographs of Kerry people taken by Padraig and Joan Kennelly.
Welcome to CSI Kerry!
Details: €5/free. Tel: 066 712 7777; kerrymuseum.ie.
The overnight suggestion
There's something reassuring about a hotel that has been in the same family for 50 years.
For the hotel -- and, more to the point, the family -- to have survived that long, a degree of care has got to have been invested in the place. And Ballygarry House doesn't disappoint in this regard.
Set back in a leafy lay-by off the Killarney Road, the place is certainly polished. There's a richly furnished library, a mahogany staircase and lots of fresh flowers.
It feels like a spot to hibernate with a book, enjoy a quiet pint or recover after a mulchy walk through Ballyseedy woods.
Checking in, I'm asked whether I have eaten -- it's late, and there's an offer to arrange something before the kitchens close.
The barman opens a tab. I sink into the evening.
My room has a view over the Kerry Mountains, a marble-tiled bathroom, a plate of cookies dusted in sugar.
At the Nadur Spa, there's a list of Voya treatments and an outdoor hot tub. Breakfast is a small but perfectly formed selection of fruits, cereals, croissants, sausages, eggs and bacon.
Kerry isn't short on hotels -- if anything, it has too many four-stars. This one, however, is bang on the note.
My only quibble is the distraction of a radio news show at breakfast. Until then, I had quite enjoyed being removed from the real world.
Details: Two nights' B&B plus one dinner from €119pp (midweek). Tel: 066 712 3322; ballygarryhouse.com.
The outdoor dip
It's a sluggish summer. We've had the wettest June since Noah, floods in July and endless gloom in August.
So why haven't the punters on Maherabeg got the memo?
I arrive at one of those fluke moments, when the clouds part to shower everything with sunshine.
But even when the weather is dull, visitors make the best of this Blue Flag beach. It helps when there's a camping park next door and two watersports operators in the dunes.
A big family has thrown up a windbreaker. Others are building sandcastles. A father and son play hurling in board shorts.
At the Waterworld cabin, kids can pay €10 to join the One Hour Club, getting wetsuits, buoyancy aids and an hour's use of the kayaks, pedal boats and inflatable trampolines and slides floating out in the bay.
There are piles of them at it, too.
Then there's the view. Standing on the beach, looking back towards Tralee, I see miles of sandy shoreline to the south, the Blennerville Windmill to the east, and Fenit to the north. If only I could frame it, before the weather changes again.
The Secret Beach
If you want to get away from it all, sometimes you have to take a boat. At least, that's what I do on the Magharee Peninsula.
Hooking up with Philip Fitzgibbon of Waterworld for a rib tour of Tralee Bay, our first stop is the island of Illauntannig.
Illauntannig is the largest of several Magharee Islands, and home to the remains of a 6th- century monastery established by St Senach. It's so isolated that there's nowhere to moor. Philip spends several minutes securing the rib with an anchor and rope.
"People in Ireland don't realise what's on their doorstep," he says. "They only come out on a sunny day. But diving is perfect in the rain. You're getting wet anyway."
He should know. Philip's father, Ronnie Fitzgibbon, set up the first dive school in Ireland, and was one of the original divers to swim with Fungie the dolphin.
We find Illauntannig's beach deserted, save for the crisp prints of a seagull in the sand. Above it lie the ruins -- several broken beehive huts, an old stone cross, and a souterrain full of sheep droppings, connecting to a secret chamber in the outer wall.
Philip does island safaris on his rib, or can drop visitors off for picnics. After exploring the complex, we hop back down through the grassy banks, and haul anchor.
Details: Sea safaris from €20/€15pp. Tel: 087 277 8236; waterworld.ie.
Mary Anne's Tearooms, Tralee
Old school is new school. That's what I'm thinking in Mary Anne's, a quirky venture on Tralee's Denny Street, and a romantic vision of tea-times past.
Sash windows and wooden floorboards are peppered with flowery tablecloths. Dainty plates hang on the walls, an open fire burns, and pinks, lemons and light blues colour a chatty atmosphere.
The tearooms are named after Mary Anne Hickey, the menu tells me. She and husband Bartholomew came from a farm outside Castleisland, where they had 10 children and 54 grandchildren.
One of the 54 -- Eileen Nolan -- has opened the business in her memory.
Amongst the gourmet sandwiches, all-day breakfasts and afternoon tea options, there are several little surprises: French toast with fresh strawberries and maple syrup (€5), for instance, or a slow-roasted chicken sandwich with tomato relish and garlic mayo (€4.50).
I order the slow-roasted chicken sandwich, served with a splash of salad and a filling definitely a cut above your average chicken breast.
Next up is a slice of Auntie Nellie's Controversial Lemon Drizzle Cake (€3.50). I ask the waitress what's so controversial about it.
"I've been asked a million times!" she laughs. "It's a mystery. But it's very popular."
There's no controversy with the big, door-stopping wedge that arrives, either -- topped with a layer of lemon icing, powdered sugar and a strawberry in cream. Yum.
Details: Denny Street, Tralee. Tel: 066 712 7610.
Tralee Bay Wetlands Centre
Kerry is famous for its landscape -- this we know. So why then does Tralee Bay, encompassing 3,000 acres of wetland, seem like one of the most unsung nature reserves around?
Perhaps the brand new Tralee Bay Wetlands Centre can change that.
The centre is split in two, with one half taking the form of a free-to-access public lake (you can hire pedal boats from €10), and the other encompassing a ticketed visitor centre and habitats you can see by foot, from a 360° observation tower, and on short safari boat tours.
In time, it's hoped that the €4.5m facility will grow into mature salt and freshwater habitats for birdlife.
Even at this early stage, swans, ducks, herons, cormorants, kestrels and moorhens are regular visitors -- to a site, ironically, just a stone's throw from Tralee's Aquadome.
And the picnic? You can pitch up anywhere around the lake, or -- my tip -- nab one of the wooden tables outside the Lakeside Café.
Whether you bring your own grub, or pick up a salad or sambo from David Baitson's kitchen, you'll be happy in your lunchtime habitat.
Details: €6/€4. Tel: 066 712 6700; traleebaywetlands.org.